Potok treats the Jews of antiquity with faithful love, and utter derision. For a man who attended Yeshiva University and studied Jewish texts since youth, I am astounded at his lack of insight into basic Biblical commentary - the very Rashi he claims to befriend as a child is ignored, at times the meaning of entire passages are consequently left contorted by his deficient, "modern scholarship" reasoning. When he cannot resolve an inconsistency, meanwhile refusing to read the commentary - how frustrating it is to be holding the very commentary that would resolve his angst - he blames the hapless compilers of the text, in a patronizing, understanding sort of way that leaves one clenching the pages in dismay.
As archeological evidence grows through the Roman period and the dispersion, Potok shines.
The oppressive taxes, the administrative corruption, the widespread street fighting between pagans and Jews, the Sicarii and their deadly daggers, the apocalyptic Messiahs, the urban poor who looked with hate upon the Romans and the landed and merchant rich, the sages who sensed the horrors rebellion would bring, the high priests who sought peace with Rome at almost any cost, the Zealots whose hatred of Rome went beyond all reason, the Essenes who lived serene, monastic lives along the edge of the Dead Sea, the men and women who believed with absolute faith that G-d would miraculously redeem His people from the slavery of Rome - this was Judea during the reign of Gessius Florus. [pg. 279]Brilliant.
I knew little of early mideval Jewish history, from the end of the Amaroim period around 500 C.E. through early European Englightenment, and here Potok shed some light, though unsatisfactorily. He is kind to Islam, even overly so, ignoring completely the Battle of Khaybar and uncharacteristically downplaying the blood of Arab conquest in favor of the explosion of intellect and splendor of Moorish Spain. Though, perhaps the oncoming centuries of incessant persecutions, suffering, torture, martyrdom, conversions, expulsions and exterminations at the hands of Christendom left him misty eyed for the calm that once came with jizya .
Of Jews in Europe, I learned many things. The Spanish Inquisition began in France, and its repeal only came in 1834. Jews played a key function in developing and administering the Polish empire - a role my people filled in many lands, for many kings. The Jewish ghetto was born in Venice, Italy, in 1516, when Jews were permitted to live in the city, so long as they resided in the geto nuovo - the new foundry. There is more, much more, increasingly familiar and repetitive. At times, Potok is poignant.
Those were the centuries when Ashkenazic Jews learned how to die for their way of life. [...] When the mobs came they would make every effort to avoid death. No one sought martyrdom. They would fast in penitence for real or imagined sins. They would seek the protection of bishops and rulers. They would use their weapons to hold off the mobs. But when defeat was near, they would accept it as a sign from G-d that their deaths had been decreed. There might be a pause in the battle. The men would gather for a final decision. To let themselves and their families be taken alive by such mobs was unthinkable. [...] Fathers would say the words, cut the throats of their wives and children, say aloud, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one," and commit suicide. [pg. 404-405]It is a gift to glean pain from numb misery, to feel at all, watching the death unfold, line by line; to imagine oneself amid the horror.
Enough, the rest is cheery, save for those six million, among them most of my family; at this point, no one is counting, least of all Potok. He weaves into Zionism carefully, articulating less his own vision than that of the founders, and the fulfillment of theirs. Elegant. Wrap it up, we ask, as modern history is aplenty, and he does.
I enjoyed the book, let there be no doubt. The sway of Potok's centuries carried me away, convincingly. Yet, it is early on that he stutters, it is in Jewish antiquity that he fails magnificently, nurturing a resentment to feed a single-minded hunger that permeates my thoughts - to prove Potok wrong. Perhaps, one day, and in that he will have triumphed.